Methodological Naturalism

Phillip E. Johnson (
Wed, 25 Mar 1998 04:38:27 -0800

To Loren Haarsma and the ASA list:

If you have a reliable special revelation from God (via Scripture or
otherwise) then of course you know that theism is true regardless of any
other evidence. But granted the unique superiority of methodological
naturalism (MN) as a principle of scientific investigation (the premise of
my original comment), how can you be confident that you have such a
revelation? MN is not just applicable to evolution. It is also the
scientific way to investigate purported divine revelations and miracles.

By MN we know that natural selection has immense creative power, sufficient
to make cells and complex organs, even though no one has ever seen this
power demonstrated. By MN we know that there was a universe of ancestors
and transitional forms in the preCambrian rocks, although they have
mysteriously vanished. By MN Biblical scholars have discovered that the
Pentateuch was stitched together from various sources (J, E, P, etc) and
that the "historical Jesus" worked no miracles and was deified by his
followers. Finally, by MN we know that Scriptural passages praising God
give evidence only of the religious consciousness of whoever wrote them.

I agree that these conclusions cannot coerce the unwilling mind. If we are
sufficiently motivated, we can invoke exceptions to save something from the
scrutiny of MN. Perhaps MN is inapplicable to Salvation History as opposed
to biological history, to the New Testament and the Psalms as opposed to
Genesis, to the creation of the soul as opposed to the body, or to anything
else that we particularly want to attribute to supernatural action. Such
exceptions appear arbitrary to most intellectuals steeped in MN. This is
why MN dominates Biblical studies as well as science, why theism has
virtually no standing in the mainstream intellectual world, and why even
Christian educational institutions tend to drift steadily towards

I also agree that MN provides no answer to the ultimate question, ("why is
there something instead of nothing?"). Perhaps it would be more precise
to say that it provides this answer: "No one knows, although some pretend to."

Finally this statement by Loren is close to my own position (since I reject
the premise of my original comment):

>I do not say that it ["the regular operation and providential governance
of >natural mechanisms"] should be the *only* theistic premise allowed when
>scientifically investigating natural history. I say only that it should
>be considered a strong possibility. We can let the data reveal which
>method God actually chose.)

To put it in my words: Follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it
leads to conclusions such as these: (1) the Darwinian mechanism has no
significant creative power; (2) the hypothesized Precambrian ancestors
never existed; (3) the documents hypothesis and the quest for the
historical (i.e. naturalistic) Jesus are mere naturalistic speculations;
and (4) the reality of irreducible complexity and the nature of genetic
information points to the necessity for attributing biological creation to
an intelligent cause.

Incidentally, I will be discussing these issues today and tomorrow as I
lecture at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest,
North Carolina. If I get any interesting responses by tomorrow morning,
I'll be able to mention them to the students and faculty.

Phil Johnson

At 09:56 AM 3/23/98 -0500, Loren Haarsma wrote:
>Phillip Johnson wrote:
>(from *Reason in the Balance*, p. 211):
>> "If employing methodological naturalism is the only way to reach true
>> conclusions about the history of the universe, and if the attempt to
>> provide a naturalistic history of the universe has gone from success to
>> success, and if even theists concede that trying to do science on theistic
>> premises always leads nowhere or into error (the embarrassing "God of the
>> gaps"), then the likely explanation for this state of affairs is that
>> naturalism is true and theism is false."
>> Note that this statement says "likely explanation." It does not claim the
>> status of absolute truth, and does not deny that sufficently motivated
>> theists can find a refuge. They can retreat into an unfalsifiable
>> position, by (for example) saying that God created the whole system, and
>> constantly upholds it with his mighty (but scientifically undetectable)
>> Who disagrees?
>If one studies the natural history of the universe in isolation from
>other knowledge, if one only reluctantly -- as a last resort -- includes
>"the regular operation of natural mechanisms" into the suite of possible
>"theistic premises," then I would agree. But if you're talking about a
>biblical theism which takes into account everything that special
>revelation says about how God acts and interacts with creation, and which
>takes into account everything we have learned from other areas of science
>about the kind of creation we live in, then I do disagree with that
>First, what we learn from nature is relevant to the issue of naturalism
>versus theism; however, what we learn from history, community, and
>personal experience is far more important for deciding between naturalism
>and biblical theism.
>Second, scientific knowledge about the history of the universe should be
>put into the context of our scientific knowledge about other processes in
>creation, and in particular, it should be put into the context of what
>scripture says about those other natural processes. For example, the
>history of science shows us a number of theistic premises about planetary
>motion and the nature of stars which "lead nowhere or into error." (The
>history of science also shows us a number of similarly flawed
>naturalistic premises.) The earliest successful premises were those
>which proposed -- on the basis of theism -- the regular operation of
>natural mechanisms. Yet scripture, especially the Psalms, repeatedly
>praises God for his sovereignty and control over these things and many
>other things we study as "natural processes" (e.g. the regular operation
>of weather patterns, the creation of each new generation of people, the
>life and death of plants and animals, the predatory actions of wild
>animals, etc). If the psalmists were correct to give such praise to God,
>then "the regular operation of created natural mechanisms" is, in fact, a
>very important means by which God often chooses to operate in governing
>the physical and biological world. (The regular operation of natural
>mechanisms gives the same empirical predictions as "methodological
>naturalism," which leads many theists to adopt that term.)
>Third, no matter how successful methodological naturalism might be, it
>does not answer the questions of why such an interesting universe should
>exist at all, nor why the history of the universe went down the
>particular pathway it did. Biblical theism, on the other hand, has much
>to say in precisely those areas where methodological naturalism is quiet.
>God has revealed a purpose for creation. God can and does work through
>"random" (from a human and scientific perspective) events.
>Given this larger context for investigating the natural history of the
>universe, "the regular operation and providential governance of natural
>mechanisms" belongs as a prominent member of the suite of possible
>theistic premises, not merely as a premise of final desperation. (Note,
>I do not say that it should be the *only* theistic premise allowed when
>scientifically investigating natural history. I say only that it should
>be considered a strong possibility. We can let the data reveal which
>method God actually chose.)
>To describe this as "unfalsifiable" would be misleading. Such biblical
>theism confronts history, society, science, and personal experience on
>many different fronts. It is as open to rational inquiry, and
>modification in the face of new data, as other world-views.
>Loren Haarsma